Catlin Gabel School Breaks Records Moving to Virtual Event

Virtual events for schools offer unique opportunities and challenges

When faced with a sudden mandated restriction on large gatherings, Catlin Gabel School, Portland Oregon’s nationally recognized progressive independent day school, moved quickly to create a unique online fundraising event, surpassing goals and paving the way for other nonprofits and schools to follow their lead.

Planning for Catlin Gabel’s annual fundraiser was in the final stages when news of the global pandemic began to break. Event planners immediately recognized its possible effect on the school’s most profitable fundraiser, one that brings in 40% of the year’s funding. This prompted them to pro-actively create two events; the in-person event they would normally plan, and a “Plan B” event that would be held virtually online for their 400+ attendees. Three days prior to the event’s date, their fore-thought paid off when Oregon’s governor declared a “social distancing” mandate in response to COVID-19 and the school’s campus and event venue was closed till further notice.

Catlin Gabel’s Plan

There were several areas that required adjustments to make this plan work and they reached out to their vendors, internal departments, sponsors, and donors to make the transition a success.

Calling in the specialists for Virtual events for schools

Event planners contacted the professional benefit auctioneer they’d hired to oversee the live auction, revenue strategy and run-of-show planning. Misty Marquam of Marquam Auction Agency immediately got on board and was ready to work with them to take the fundraiser online. Marquam researched data from other virtual events to get an idea of what to expect. She reviewed how many viewers they could expect, what technical issues may occur, and every other relevant factor.

We knew canceling was not an option, so we rolled up our sleeves, did what research we could and dove head first into the virtual unknown! And thank goodness we did. We pioneered a new opportunity for NPOs to continue fundraising—despite our current obstacles. The best part? It works!

Working with sponsors

The planning team then turned to their sponsors. With sponsorship levels set for $25,000, $10,000, $5,000 and $2,500, their sponsorship program represents a significant amount of income that comes from this annual event. Transparency and collaboration made the difference when the planning team took their dilemma to their sponsors. Catlin Gabel’s representatives explained the situation and presented new ideas that offered benefits for both the sponsors and the school. Sponsor recognition was placed on the event’s landing page and the online platforms supporting the auction, as well as advertisements that were placed on the virtual program. The planners are continuing to find more ways to honor their sponsors that are meaningful and will keep the partnership going into the future. The collaboration worked very well, resulting in a 100% retention of all their sponsors.

Logistical changes

Meanwhile, representatives from Catlin Gabel reached out to Greater Giving to find out how their Event Software with Online Bidding could help support the virtual fundraising event. The school’s internal AV Department was well-adept at supporting streaming events, as their administrative team had already conducted several live-streaming virtual town halls prior to this fundraiser. They worked closely with Matt Gibson and John Chase of Greater Giving’s Customer Success team to ensure they were set up with the software to successfully run the online bidding portion of the event. With only a few days to get up to speed, implementing Online Bidding and the best practices shared by Greater Giving proved to be an invaluable part of moving to a virtual auction.

There were times we felt that Greater Giving was part of our own internal team—friends even! They were great strategic partners for us and our success really mattered to them.

Donor response

Lastly, a decision was made prior to opening the registration process to ask that attendees donate the cost of their ticket purchase to the school in order to help with the costs that had been already incurred for things such as catering, the venue, audio/visual services, and a professional auction agency. The request was well received, with the majority of attendees participating.

What Worked, What Didn’t Best Practices for School Auctions

Catlin Gabel adjusted their program to fit the format of an online event and put the viewer’s experience first. They posed the question: What will the donor see and what will they find entertaining? The Catlin Gabel team also took the time to learn the bidding system from the donor’s perspective with two practice runs so they could effectively help during the auctions.

The program was shortened to between 30 to 40 minutes, with the special appeal happening within the first 30-minutes to accommodate a person’s typical attention span. Likewise, the number of live auction items were cut down from 18 to 4 and they used the words “Closed” and “Not Sold” for the live auction, as there was lag time in online communication and a late bid could actually win before you close out the item.

To get the word out about the event, they encouraged their donors to tag the event on their social media networks by using a hashtag similar to Catlin Gabel’s “#CGauction”.

Good working relationships with the auctioneer, the Greater Giving support team, the Catlin Gabel’s AV department, and every other vendor resulted in a well-coordinated execution of the event. Flexibility and a willingness to test out a few different approaches also served to make it a seamless experience for their virtual guests.


Because Catlin Gabel’s event planners were prepared with a second online event that would work for the dramatic change the state faced, they were able to proceed with the fundraiser without an incapacitating disruption. It was held on the same date, with an audience of 400+ donors. They deepened their relationships with their sponsors by involving them in the transition with a policy of transparency and flexibility.

As a result, they created a creative and entertaining program that turned out to be very effective. They raised $700k in the virtual event surpassing their original goal of $680K! That amount was increased when they moved into the live and silent auctions, which together raised far more than the typical 40% of value, and several returning packages that typically have had difficulty selling in the past were successfully sold during the online auctions.

A successful virtual event

A huge part of the success of any virtual school event is the power of the community that supports your cause, and Catlin Gabel always shows up to support its students, it’s teachers and one another. This was no different. Catlin Gabel achieved success despite the odds by staying ahead of the news and creating a backup plan that enabled them to transfer their in-person fundraising event to one that ran both a “live” virtual program in conjunction with an “online auction” on the backend. Using effective online tools and finding ways to work with everyone involved proved that online events is an option that can bring in amazing results. Evolving technologies give nonprofits, like Catlin Gabel, a chance to carry on, even when faced with difficult challenges.

Watch the entire live streamed 2020 Catlin Gabel School Auction to get ideas for your virtual event!

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